Paul Buskirk

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This talented picker is a threat on almost every instrument with strings. He is an accomplished guitarist, mandolinist, and banjoist, and fans of Paul Buskirk's various projects can bicker amongst themselves…
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This talented picker is a threat on almost every instrument with strings. He is an accomplished guitarist, mandolinist, and banjoist, and fans of Paul Buskirk's various projects can bicker amongst themselves about what order of importance to list these instruments in. Perhaps they might want to list the dobro first. Buskirk cut an album devoted to playing on that instrument which certain record collectors have offered fat ransoms for. He has also been a champion of various forms of traditional string band music for more than 60 years. One of his supreme achievements along these lines is the 1981 Willie Nelson album entitled Somewhere Over the Rainbow, featuring standards played in a hot jazz style by a crack team of acoustic instrumentalists. Buskirk also acted as producer on this beautifully recorded album, all part of a life-long involvement with Nelson that seems to go in as many directions as the Rio Grande has tributaries. His musical roots were in guitar and mandolin but he added the tenor banjo simply because bandleader Gene Austin happened to ask if Buskirk could play it. He thereby joined a select group of musicians who added or switched instruments just because somebody asked them to, the most extreme example being jazz drummer Art Blakey, who switched from piano to drums at gunpoint, the music critic and control freak being a local gangster. Other musicians Buskirk has worked with include guitar honcho Chet Atkins, cowboy singing star Tex Ritter, Opry overlord Roy Acuff and many country legends such as Lefty Frizzell and the Louvin Brothers.

Buskirk's reputation as a first class mandolinist goes back to the '40s. The brilliant mandolinist Red Rector recalls that during an era when bluegrass king Bill Monroe totally dominated the instrument, Buskirk had a reputation for actually having figured out a different way of playing on mandolin. Buskirk had played with the duo Johnny and Jack in West Virginia, the mandolinist planting a tingle in their ears with his superb technique and robust runs on the low strings, not something Monroe was known for. Rector was playing with Johnny and Jack a few years later. It was really very early in Rector's career, and the acquired teenage musician was too frightened to appear with Johnny and Jack on the Grand Old Opry. When he bowed out, Buskirk was brought in as a hot-shot replacement. Rector was listening to the broadcast at home on his radio. "Man alive! I never heard nothing like that in my life!," Rector recalled. Another of Buskirk's early collaborations was with the Callahan Brothers. Walter, known as Joe Callahan, and Homer, known as Bill Callahan, relocated to Texas in the late '30s The brothers formed a group called the Blue Ridge Mountain Folk, which included former Coon Creek Girls members Esther Koehler and Evelyn Lange, Georgia Slim Rutland on fiddle, and Buskirk. This group began to experiment with the use of electrified instruments, something that might have made Bill Monroe want to go hide out in a hole in the ground. Public reaction was more positive. The group became one of the most popular bands in the Southwest, with regular radio broadcasts in Texas and Kansas. It recorded a series of transcription discs which were played in Texas and Mexico on Border Radio. In the spring of 1941, Buskirk and the group made seven recordings for the Decca label.

Although figuring heavily into Willie Nelson projects recorded during the '80s and '90s, Buskirk's reputation with the ponytailed wonder goes back much farther. Both men were part of the country & western club scenes in cities such as Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin, along with other veteran Texas performers such as Freddy Powers. The ease with which Nelson would eventually be able to breeze in and out of his private recording studio, cutting albums at will, must have been quite the contrast to the early days. For example, an early effort involving Buskirk and Nelson was the recording of the song "Night Life," co-written by Belson, Buskirk, and Walt Breeland, and fated to eventually become a country standard. The sleazy record producer Pappy Daily had his hooks into Nelson at the time. In his opinion, this "Night Life" song wasn't country, it was blues, so he was threatening Nelson with legal action if the song was recorded. After all, Daily had signed a contract with a country artist. Not one to balk at legal hassles when art is at stake, Nelson booked another studio and hired musicians on his own. A different small Houston label wound up releasing this record under the name of Paul Buskirk and His Little Men, featuring Hugh Nelson. Thus, "Night Life" was born. The song was eventually a major country hit for Faron Young, then went on to be recorded by a who's who of artists including the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin and the King of Schlock, Pat Boone. It is one of Buskirk's several co-written pieces with Nelson that have become standards. Another is the gospel tune "Family Bible."

Buskirk was marginally involved in a whole series of records produced for square dances in Houston during the '50s and early '60s, most of which are considered to be a waste of his talents from the listener's perspective, although surely adequate for dancing purposes. In 1960, Buskirk gave Nelson enough money to move to Nashville, namely 50 dollars, which was also the going price back then for an original Nelson song back then, that is when his luck was good. It was a long way from there to the gold records for Columbia. The same year, Buskirk joined the new Herb Remington Combo led by an amazing steel guitarist. This group specialized in Hawaiian music and gigged the casino circuit around Las Vegas or for functions that wanted an island atmosphere. Herb Remington disbanded this outfit in 1971.

In the early '90s, Nelson -- who else? -- used his influence to help produce and record the album Nacogdoches Waltz, a project for his old pal Buskirk as leader, featuring Western swing music and highlighting the sound of the mandola, a heftier version of the mandolin that Buskirk focused on more and more as he went into his seventh decade in the music business.